Learning to lead: JROTC goes beyond military misconceptions

Cadets of all grade levels stand at attention before marching inside Cretin-Derham Hall. In the Twin Cities, there are ten high schools with JROTC units, three for the Army.
Photo By: Thomas Wrede
Some of these individuals look at JROTC as that bond for them. If it weren't for the program, a lot of kids wouldn't be at that school. It motivates kids to come back day after day.

“Fall in!”

Everyone’s uniform is in exceptional condition.

Shoes are polished. Ties are snug. Ribbons, straight and centered.

In formation, the Battalion Commander announces today’s plan: “Knockout.” It is a game meant to test a cadet’s proficiency while executing commands in Drill and Ceremony—the detailed practice of marching from one area to another during a parade or ceremonial event.

“Right face!”

Cadets must face to the right or they will be eliminated from the competition.

“Left face!”
“About face!”
“Present arms!”

Commands must be given in a specific order during D&C. However, in “Knockout,” they may be issued in the wrong sequence to perplex cadets. Just like the classic game Simon Says, false commands may also be given to stump cadets—the goal of discipline disguised as spirited competition and fun.

It’s a typical scene in Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), a nationwide program that boasts three million cadets in roughly 1,700 high schools. Also typical is the misconception that joining JROTC as a teenager means you’ve signed up for a life in the military.

“I was afraid to join JROTC at first. I thought that when we get into the program, we have to join the Army afterwards,” said Melody Nguyen, a Humboldt High School graduate now at the University of St. Thomas.

“Most people … when they initially see someone in the JROTC uniform … think it has a direct tie to some sort of military service. In fact, students learn very little about the military,” added Sergeants Major (SGM) David Berrisford, a JROTC instructor at Cretin-Derham Hall.

“Cadets learn much more about what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be part of the community.”

The core of the program’s curriculum in the classroom centers on the study of ethics, citizenship, communications, leadership, character building and civic responsibility, among other subjects designed to prepare young men and women to take their place in adult society.

According to its website, United States Army JROTC began with the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916. Under the provisions of the Act, high schools were authorized the loan of federal military equipment and the assignment of active duty military personnel as instructors.

In 1964, the Vitalization Act opened JROTC to other services and replaced most of the active duty instructors with retired members of the Armed Forces. As a result, the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy have JROTC units as well.

For Army JROTC, cadets—the name given to high school students enrolled in the program—are led by 4,000 retired personnel nationwide who work as instructors. They, Nguyen said, are the reason the program is successful for teenagers who are trying to discover what they want to be as they mature into productive citizens.

“I love being in JROTC. First of all, because (Lt. Col.) Howard Johnson is an awesome colonel. He’s a great resource for my endless questions about the Army and whatever else,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen and her fellow classmates at Humboldt also received nicknames.

“It might sound silly, but Colonel actually ‘re-named’ us. I was GI Jane at first, now am permanently Combat Barbie. This made JROTC become the second family to all of us at Humboldt.”

The instructors at Cretin-Derham Hall—SGM Berrisford, Master Sergeant (MSG) Kenneth Peloski and Senior Army Instructor Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) James Fischer—also aim to provide a sense of belonging to their cadets. At its core, JROTC is meant to be a program highlighting a mix of disparate backgrounds, interests and abilities—especially in more economically challenged neighborhoods or with students who seek discipline.

In the Twin Cities, there are ten high schools with JROTC units, three for the Army. JROTC concludes when students graduate high school. However, cadets can pursue Senior ROTC in college, and many times, students are selected for ROTC scholarships.

“A lot of kids … look at JROTC and know every single day it is something they can embrace,” said MSG Peloski, who has worked at public and private schools as a JROTC instructor. “There are several broken homes. Kids come home and there is no structure, there may not be that family bond.

“Some of these individuals look at JROTC as that bond for them. If it weren’t for the program, a lot of kids wouldn’t be at that school. It motivates kids to come back day after day.”

Leadership Lab, specifically, occurs at least once a week and involves every high school grade level. It is the heart of team building.

“You get to see students progress as the year passes and you build a strong relationship with everyone around you,” said Bo Bo Thao, a senior at Humboldt High School.

Leadership Lab centralizes on Drill and Ceremony. Experienced students focus on teaching the skills of marching to younger cadets so they can become self-sufficient.

“Many people see me as a leader, and after joining I’ve felt like I’m actually someone who’s important and needed for a reason. Getting to see others look up to me and follow my example (is rewarding),” said Thao, a Cadet Major.

Leadership Lab reinforces the idea that whatever stage you are at in life, someone is there to give you direction. Details are important, especially uniform inspections.

By focusing on lessons that promote structure and organization, students learn how to accomplish something special as a cohesive unit—and of course, do it right.

“They have a chance to practice leadership with one of the most difficult groups. And that’s their peers,” Lt. Col. Fischer said.

“Participating in group-oriented projects helped me become a better leader, more open-minded,” Nguyen said. “I became more efficient as a leader by using all of the help I (could) get from my group.”